Youth respond to COVID-19 in heartfelt ‘Inside Voices’ film from Arena Stage

An intimate, first-person docudrama by students in middle and high school about how the pandemic has upended their lives.

For school-age children, their world has turned upside down because of COVID-19. Over the past three months, children and youth have lived from a distance in a virtual world, lived with a muffled shout asking for physical connections.

Don’t believe me?

Then let me invite you to watch a remarkable original film created by Arena Stage’s Voices of Now (VON) project entitled Inside Voices. If you aren’t familiar with VON, it is this: Arena Stage provides an artistic home for ten ensembles of artists at middle school, high school, and university levels. “The Voices of Now artists devise autobiographical plays that are fast-paced, collaboratively written physical theater pieces that pose challenging social questions relevant to the artists and their communities” as Arena Stage notes. The ensemble members are generally from DC and Fairfax County schools.

From ‘Inner Voices.’

The outstanding Inside Voices is a response to COVID-19 from the perspective of middle and high school aged youth. It is a perspective not often visible. But Arena’s Ashley Forman and Mauricio Pita heard and saw how COVID-19 was hurting young people. From there, they worked with about 130 students to devise an original film based on real-life VON ensemble members experiences.

Forman and Pita directed the young theatermakers to bring their honest perspective on how the pandemic was affecting their lives. With the limits of distance and the virtual world, Forman and Pitas directed Inside Voices with about 130 performers, and creative artists used their experiences and their own cell phones and other digital gear in homes in truly unprecedented ways. Sure, we adults are having our own hard time, but for school-age children, their normal social support systems have been upended.

The VON artists, says Arena Stage, “are uniquely qualified to create art that leads to productive inquiry while representing their authentic point of view…to catalog the experiences of young people in a way that will speak to future generations.”

In its 45-minute run time, Inside Voices presents intimate, heartfelt monologues, deeply meaningful acoustic musical compositions, and illuminating choreography. What’s more, the performers show visible authentic anxiousness. They make their isolation from what was once their normal lives palpable. The performers are in a personal docudrama about a world in which the COVID-19 pandemic puts unforeseen pressures on them—pressures that likely will be with them well beyond this moment in time.

From ‘Inner Voices.’

The Inside Voices film opens with a young woman looking directly at the viewer: “When I was 15 the world fell apart…fast” From there the viewer hears and sees how VON youth feel that the adults in their lives let them down; had not been honest with them about COVID-19, at least at the beginning of the pandemic; that adults, including parents and teachers perhaps out of fear of overburdening their children and students, “didn’t share with us.”

As one youthful VON performer suggests, “We had all these questions and at first we were not taken seriously” even as the last day of in-person school came so suddenly. Some wondered if they had been “lied” to. Many presented themselves as becoming alienated and “trapped.”  One noted not even knowing “how to grieve” losses.

The school systems come into focus as institutions in which distance learning was not easy or of value. The normal rhythms of the in-person school day had been messed with. VON performers mentioned there was on-line verbal abuse and bullying with the distance learning. They confided that they did not khow to protect themselves. Regular after-school activities stopped.

In the Inside Voices film there are monologues with well-accomplished animation about the real reasons to wear masks when visiting grandparents, family members who could not be hugged. Several authentically delivered monologues were about loneliness illuminated by movement and aching dance. One VON performer described life as being lived in “a personal bubble” and “consumed by loneliness.”

From ‘Inner Voices.’

How could I not react but with sadness to a monologue about feeling “as if they were a germ.” There was “no familiar to make us feel safe” is how one performer put it, looking directly into the camera lens. The youthful performers wanted adults to help them learn how to ameliorate their pain and loneliness in a world that was “foggy and dark.”

But know this too. The Arena Stage film is one with an encouraging arc. It is not all darkness for those open to hearing the honesty of inside voices. Parents and teachers began to pay attention.  Life began to have joy to it. Comfort was found and received.

Arena Stage has accomplished more than merely sheding some light on children affected by COVID-19. Inside Voices is a testament to the new world that young people inhabit and are trying to adapt to. We are privy to that. We can see and hear what is inside them. Ultimately the Inside Voices film is an original work about striving toward resilience.

As Anita Maynard-Losh, Arena Stage director of community engagement and senior artistic advisor, noted: “It is also an opportunity for the community to have a unique artistic record of what these young people have experienced at this historic time.” This is no overstatement. Please do take the opportunity to see and listen.

Arena Stage’s Voices of Now Inside Voices is streaming for free for the foreseeable future. You can find it here.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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